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July 27, 2004

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Bored Already? Stop and Think How Lucky You Are

By David Hoffmann
Tuesday, July 27, 2004

BOSTON-For people around the world who are watching the Democratic convention from Boston, this is a week of media madness -- and a taste of democracy at its best.

In many countries, open media and access to information -- the kind we will see in the coverage of both conventions -- are not allowed.

Think about it. Among the 15,000 journalists covering this event are reporters from Moscow to Manila, Cairo to the Congo; and they are filing stories in Chinese, Pashtun, Polish, Russian and other languages. Many of these reporters can’t freely file stories on their own country’s politics, but they will aggressively cover ours.

As Americans, we live and breathe in the information age. We expect to find up-to-the-minute news throughout the day about our politics and politicians. Media are central to our economy, our culture, our political system and our everyday lives. Reporting on American politics is something we take for granted -- until we think about what life would be without open media.

In Russia, President Putin won a landslide victory following an election campaign where the news on state-controlled media was strictly controlled and airtime for opposition candidates was severely limited. Just this month, two journalists were found murdered, including the American Paul Klebnikov, who was known for his investigative reporting on the country’s business sector.

In China, the government censors Internet Web sites that challenge the official version of events. In Iran, dozens of newspapers have been banned and their editors thrown in jail. In Zimbabwe, journalists are beaten and jailed. In Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, independent television stations have been suppressed, and media owners and publishers have been victims of anonymous physical violence. Afghanistan is just starting to rebuild its media architecture after years of Taliban rule that prohibited almost all forms of media. Iraq is still reeling from decades of state propaganda under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

What we learn from closed societies, and those in transition, is that open media is critical to the development of tolerant, civil societies. Experience teaches us that media are essential for holding free elections and fair elections. Without open media, one cannot assess candidates and issues. Without open media, corruption and human rights abuses cannot be exposed. Without the free exchange of ideas, citizens cannot make informed decisions about their lives and leaders.

We need to engage our own citizens and those of other countries in the political process. We will never have support for democracy if we are ill informed, at home or abroad.
So, just when you think you cannot watch one more balloon fly over the convention floor, one more sign or banner, one more delegate trying to be heard above the crowd, think about the alternatives: not knowing what the real issues are, not having confidence that what you hear has any relationship to reality. Think about what it would be like not to have columnists and commentators passionately debate the merits of the candidates’ speeches or having the freedom to read articles that openly criticize them.

And tune in both to Boston and New York next month -- to see one of democracy’s finest rituals: unlimited coverage of an open process that many countries seek but cannot yet attain.


David Hoffman is the president of Internews, an international non-profit organization that provides professional-journalism training for journalists and station managers around the world

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